Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The definitive SI baseball preview cover analysis

{NOTE: Originally posted on April 1, 2010, this analysis is now updated yearly to show the latest accurate numbers. I haven't come across a study like this, but it doesn't mean it's not out there. Though it would be a bit of a downer if I found out I did all this research for nothing. With only a few exceptions, all links lead to images of the covers.}

After I posted the 2010 Sports Illustrated baseball preview cover on Facebook (in addition to here), my friend Brad left this comment:

One of my first SI issues was the 1987 baseball preview issue, with Cory Snyder and the Indians on the cover. The Indians, of course, went 61-101 that year.

And that got my mind racing. How accurate has the magazine been in its choices for the annual baseball preview? We all know about the cover jinx, but does the jinx hold up through an entire season as well as it seems to on a more short-term basis, from week to week? It didn't take me too long to whip up a spreadsheet, scroll through SI's covers gallery to find each preview and plug in the numbers, with the help of Baseball-Reference.

So I may get a little obsessive at times, assigning myself mundane tasks that, in the end, result in little more than some neat -- and possibly very arbitrary -- numbers to peruse. But I don't care. Here are the results, showing how many teams, players and positions were featured, plus the teams' and players' results that season, from stats to All-Star nods to awards, plus a little more.

The totals and general figures
Through 2014, SI released 60 baseball season preview issues (not covers, as I'll explain shortly), featuring 25 of the 30 franchises that exist today. If you count the Montreal Expos and two instances of the Washington Senators separately, there are 33 different teams in that time. Twenty-five have been featured on the cover; neither Senators club made it, but the Twins and Rangers have. Both the Expos and Washington Nationals have had players on a cover.

In 2013, the magazine also introduced full regional covers for its baseball preview for the first time. From 2009-11, the main image on all covers was the same nationally, but there were regional insets, which I chose not to count in the player totals. Those players will be noted in the yearly breakdown below, however. As for the regional covers beginning with 2013, I've decided to count those collectively as one issue for the 60 noted at the start of the previous paragraph (to indicate the number of years the magazine has produced a baseball preview issue) but have credited each player with a solo appearance (hence Sabathia's two solo covers).

In 2014, the Yankees broke their tie with the Red Sox to retake the lead with eight covers -- though one of Boston's was the 1990 cover featuring a long-retired Ted Williams and the headline, "Was it a better game in Ted's day?" That was one of two covers to feature an inactive player, along with the 1984 one with Yankees manager Yogi Berra, and one of eight that didn't have an active player at all. There were six years from 1956-65 that showed no players: 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1963 and 1965.

Here is the team-by-team tally:
Yankees 8
Red Sox 7
Dodgers 6
Cardinals 6
Phillies 5
Orioles 3
Giants 3
Reds 3
Tigers 3
Royals 3
Angels 3
Mariners 3
Indians 2
Twins 2
Mets 2
Pirates 2
Nationals 2
Brewers 1
D-backs 1
Rockies 1
Cubs 1
Rangers 1
Padres 1
A's 1
Expos 1
Rays 1

There have been 74 different active players to grace the cover before a season, including 16 Hall of Famers (though Williams and Berra are among those), 41 players who would have All-Star seasons the year they appeared on the cover, two who would take MVP honors (both in the NL), four Cy Young winners (with each league represented), two who would break significant records, three who would win 20 games and 11 who went on to lead their respective leagues in one of the triple crown categories: batting average, home runs, RBIs, wins, ERA and strikeouts. Those 11 players led the way in 13 categories overall, particularly boosted by the Cy Young-winning pitchers. Hitters have averaged .295 (158-for-535) with 23 home runs and 85 RBIs. Pitchers have averaged a 14-8 record, 176 strikeouts and a 3.19 ERA (68 earned runs in 193 innings).

Starting pitchers have appeared the most, 32 times each (no relievers have appeared), followed by 20 outfielders, 11 first basemen, six third basemen, five shortstops, five catchers, two managers, two second baseman and one owner. Eleven of the covers have featured multiple people, but only four times has it been multiple representatives for one team. Mays, Derek Jeter, Mark McGwire, Steve Garvey, Roy Halladay, Albert Pujols and CC Sabathia are the only players to appear more than once (twice each), with Garvey, Pujols and Sabathia the only ones to be featured solo on a cover. Fifteen players were featured the year they joined a new team and 13 covers showed the defending World Series champions.

Now for some jinx-related numbers. Twenty-six of the 68 teams have reached the postseason the year they were on the cover, with six winning the World Series, five losing it, three losing the ALCS, two losing the NLCS, seven losing the ALDS and three losing the NLDS. Both Division Series stats include the 1981 strike-interrupted season, when the Phillies (first half) and Royals (second half) won half the season but lost in their respective division series. Twenty-three teams finished in first place in their divisions (or leagues, before 1969), 15 finished second, 18 third, six fourth, one fifth, three sixth and two seventh. Seven teams won 100 games, two lost 100. Over the years, the teams have averaged a third-place finish and an 86-72 record.

That's it for the broad strokes. Here are the year-by-year covers, broken down by decade. For simplicity, I stuck with the triple-crown stats (AVG/HR/RBI for hitters, W-L/ERA/SO for pitchers), even if that's not how we're supposed to evaluate players these days.

1950s
SI launched in August 1954 -- with baseball on its cover in the form of Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews -- so its first baseball preview issue did not appear until April 1955. The first team to appear on a season preview was the New York Giants, who had won the World Series in '54. The cover subjects were center fielder Willie Mays and manager Leo Durocher, flanking Durocher's wife, Laraine. The cover was controversial because Laraine Durocher, a white woman, is touching Mays, a black man. It has three pages dedicated to it in James S. Hirsch's recent Mays biography. The Say Hey Kid blocked out any distractions, though, and went on to an All-Star season that year and led the Majors with 51 home runs.

Following a series of generic covers, Mays appeared again in 1959, another All-Star season.

1960s
Orioles outfielder Jackie Brandt appeared in 1961, an average .297/16/72 All-Star season, followed by Tigers pitcher Frank Lary, who had a horrible 1962: 2-6/5.74/41. Sandy Koufax got things back on the superstar track in 1964, when he was an All-Star (19-5/1.74/223) and led the NL in ERA.

In 1966, Dick Groat became the first player shown with a new team (and perhaps that's why he was chosen). It backfired when he put up .260/2/53 that season. The editors went the same route, presumably, in 1967, when new Pirates third baseman Maury Wills got the cover and fared ever-so-slightly better (.302/3/45).

Lou Brock was up in 1968, when he led the Majors in doubles, triples and stolen bases and the Cardinals became the first featured team to reach the postseason, losing to the Tigers in the World Series. Brock's appearance also marked the first of four straight years in which the defending World Series champ was on the cover. In 1969, it was Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, who was an All-Star in a .262/16/49 season.

1970s
The defending champions trend continued with Mets left-hander Jerry Koosman (12-7/3.14/118) in 1970, surrounded by caps of the other clubs, and with Orioles slugger Boog Powell (.256/22/92, All-Star) in 1971, the first year that SI's pick went on to win 100 games and the World Series. Cardinals third baseman Joe Torre (.289/11/81) and his sideburns was the choice in 1972, snapping the streak of defending champs.

Though I didn't tally how many of the cover subjects were coming off an award-winning season, I did note that 1973 cover boy Steve Carlton of the Phillies was the defending NL Cy Young winner, following his 27-10/1.97/310 NL Triple Crown campaign. His follow-up was pretty much the opposite: 13-20/3.90/223 for the last-place Phils. Reds outfielder Pete Rose graced the cover in 1974, a nondescript year for him (.284/3/51), and Garvey made his first appearance in 1975, when he went .319/18/95.

The year of my birth, 1976, may have been the bull's eye of SI baseball preview covers. The subject was Reds second baseman Joe Morgan, a future Hall of Famer for the defending World Series champs. He went on to have an MVP and All-Star season, batting .320/27/111 as the Reds went 102-60 and won the Series again. Morgan was so good that year, I'll go a little sabermetric for you: he let the Majors with a .444 OBP, .576 SLG and 1.020 OPS.

As good as '76 was for SI's choice, 1977 was as bad. New Angels outfielder Joe Rudi -- "The Angels' $2-million man" -- went on to a .264/13/53 season for the fifth-place club. The first cover shared by players from different teams appeared in 1978, when Twins first baseman Rod Carew (.333/5/70) and Reds outfielder George Foster (.302/30/98) mugged for Walter Iooss Jr.'s camera. Iooss and the magazine repeated the theme in 1979 with Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice (.325/39/130) and outfielder Dave Parker (.310/25/94) of the Pirates, who won the Series that year. All four were All-Stars as well.

1980s
In 1980, SI asked, "Who is Keith Hernandez and What Is He Doing Hitting .344?" He underachieved at the plate that year -- just .321/16/99 in an All-Star season -- but his mustache, as always, had a Hall of Fame-worthy season. Perhaps foreshadowing the year to come, in 1981 SI split the cover and hit on two teams that would win their divisions during that split season: Mike Schmidt and the Phillies (the defending champs) and George Brett and the Royals. Despite All-Star seasons by both (Schmidt hit .316/31/91, led the Majors in homers and won the NL MVP; Brett hit .314/6/43), the Phillies and Royals each lost in their respective newly-created-for-one year-until-1995 Division Series. The Dodgers won the World Series in '81, prompting Garvey's second cover appearance in 1982, though his numbers (.282/16/86) weren't as good as after his first cover.

In 1983, SI managed to get Gary Carter in between team success -- his Expos reached the playoffs in that split '81 season, and he later starred for the mid-80s Mets, but in '83 he was just the game's best catcher with an All-Star line of .270/17/79. Only the second manager to appear on an SI baseball preview came in 1984, when new Yankees skipper Yogi Berra was shown. The Yanks finished third with an 87-75 record. New York was the subject again in 1985, but this time it was the Mets' Dwight Gooden, coming off his NL Rookie of the Year campaign. He topped that with his Cy Young, MLB Triple Crown season (24-4/1.53/268) for the second-place Mets (98-64). The magazine went up I-95 in 1986, choosing third baseman Wade Boggs (.357/8/71, All-Star) of the Red Sox, who lost the World Series that year to the Mets.

Now we have the cover that started this whole project, the 1987 issue featuring the Indians' Cory Snyder and Joe Carter. It is, perhaps, the single worst baseball preview cover choice in SI's history, though not through the fault of the players. Snyder his .236/33/82 and Carter .264/32/106, but Cleveland went 61-101 -- the first of just two 100-loss teams to appear on a baseball preview cover -- and finished last in the AL East.

The publication bounced back in 1988 with Bay Area first basemen Will Clark (.282/29/109, All-Star, NL RBI leader) and Mark McGwire (.260/32/99, All-Star), whose A's lost the World Series to the Dodgers. (I convinced my parents to subscribe a year later than Brad apparently did with his folks, because this is the first baseball preview issue I recall getting.) The decade closed with Padres catcher Benito Santiago looking up at the camera in 1989; we looked down on him, then looked down on his .236/16/62 season.

1990s
Following the Williams cover in '90, SI tabbed a future Hall of Famer in 1991 in Rangers fireballer Nolan Ryan (12-6/2.91/203). Another future enshrinee appeared in 1992 in the form of Kirby Puckett (.329/19/110), who led the Majors with 210 hits that year and was an All-Star. David Cone got the cover in 1993, the year he returned to Kansas City, but he went just 11-14/3.33/191.

Another split cover preceded baseball's worst season, 1994, when no one won a World Series that didn't happen. After appearing on the first fold-out baseball preview cover, Ken Griffey Jr. hit .323/40/90 for the Mariners, who were in third place (49-63) when the season was stopped, and Mike Piazza went .319/24/92 for the first-place Dodgers (58-56). When baseball returned in 1995, future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken was the face of the season, during which he was an All-Star and went on to hit .262/17/88 while breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games-played streak.

Burned by the Indians in '87, SI waited until the Tribe was coming off a World Series appearance to feature them again in 1996, with Manny Ramirez (.309/33/112) on the cover. Cleveland fared better this time, winning the AL Central before losing in the ALDS. The Big Unit's big face hit mailboxes in 1997, when Randy Johnson went 20-4/2.28/291 and was an All-Star for the NL West-winning (and ALDS-losing) Mariners. He finished second to Roger Clemens in AL Cy Young voting.

McGwire made his second preview cover in 1998, the year he broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record. McGwire's .299/70/147 All-Star year* got him second in NL MVP voting to Sammy Sosa. SI closed the decade, the century, the millenium with new Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown, who had signed baseball's richest contract in the offseason and at least had a solid 1999: 18-9/3.00/221.

2000s
SI opened the decade in 2000 with a bang, choosing Red Sox righty Pedro Martinez the year he went 18-6/1.74/284 and won the AL Cy Young while leading the Junior Circut in strikeouts and pacing the Majors in ERA. Derek Jeter (.311/21/74, All-Star) followed in 2001, following his World Series MVP autumn, and the Yankees reached the Fall Classic again before losing to the Diamondbacks on the last night of the Yankee dynasty. New Yankee Jason Giambi was the pick in 2002, one of his great years (.314/41/122). A third straight Yankee cover tested the tolerance of the rest of the country in 2003, and it was truly overkill. Not only did it feature five starting pitchers (Roger Clemens, Jeff Weaver, Jose Contreras, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina) and the headline, "You can't have too much pitching," centered among all those pinstripes was George Steinbrenner, the only owner on a preview cover.

No Yankees in 2004, but an injury-prone Kerry Wood, who went 8-9/3.72/144 for the Cubs, who didn't win the World Series (again). But Jeter (.309/19/70) returned in 2005, when he and Johnny Damon (.316/10/75) exchanged suspicious glances and then both teams bowed out in the ALDS. SI got the World Series champions right in 2006 with Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (.331/49/137) and new Red Sox hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka (15-12/4.40/201) in 2007.

In 2008, a showcase of young talent brought six players representing five teams to the fold-out cover: Ryan Braun of the Brewers, Justin Upton of the D-backs and Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies made the front cover; Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox and Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals appeared on the fold-out flap. Braun (.285/37/106 and the only All-Star of the bunch) and the Brewers lost in the NLDS and Boston, with Ellsbury (.280/9/47, AL-leading 50 stolen bases) and Buchholz (2-9/6.75/72), lost in the ALDS. Upton (.250/15/42) and Arizona (second, 82-80), Tulo (.263/8/46) and Colorado (third, 74-88) and Zimmerman (.285/14/51) and Washington (sixth, 59-102) sat out the postseason.

In 2009, the Yankees' new import, CC Sabathia (19-8/3.37/197, MLB lead in wins) was the centerpiece and proved to be a big piece of the Bombers' 27th world championship. For the record, though not part of these stats as I said, the inset photos customized for six regions showed David Wright (lost season), Manny Ramirez (NLCS loss), Carlos Zambrano (face-plant), Carl Crawford (solid campaign), Dustin Pedroia (ALDS loss) and Justin Morneau (ALDS loss).

2010s
When Halladay joined the Phillies, he got the cover in 2010, with insets featuring Sabathia (21 wins, third in AL Cy Young voting), John Lackey (14-11, 4.40 in 215 IP), Brian McCann (.269/21/77, All-Star), Pujols (.312/42/118, second in NL MVP voting), Tulowitzki (.315/27/95, fifth in NL MVP voting) and Matt Kemp (.249/28/89). The next year, Halladay made history by being part of the main image (not the inset) in consecutive seasons when the entire Philly rotation got the cover in 2011. Halladay did well those years, winning the NL Cy Young in '10 with a league-leading 21 wins (against 10 losses), 2.44 ERA and 219 strikeouts. His 2011 was very similar (19-6/2.35/220) for an average line those two years of 20-8/2.40/219.5. Philadelphia won the NL East both years, going 97-65 in '10 (when they lost the NLCS to the Giants) and 102-60 in '11 (when they lost in the NLDS to the Cardinals).

In 2012, it was back to the single, true national cover, with Pujols making his second solo appearance after signing his huge free-agent contract with the Angels in the offseason. He started slowly but finished strong to post a respectable .285/30/105, even if the average and home runs were the worst of his career. He still somehow managed to finish 17th in AL MVP voting for a club that went 89-73 and finished in third place in the AL West.

Following a practice it has used often for college preview issues, whether leading into a season or postseason, SI printed six regional covers in 2013, unveiling them on Twitter at the rate of one an hour in the morning and early afternoon the day before they hit newstands. Stephen Strasburg -- and the magazine's pick to win the World Series, the Nationals -- led it off just after 9 a.m. ET, followed by David Price (the first Rays appearance in their history), Justin Verlander (amazingly, the first Tiger since Freehan in '69), Sabathia (his second solo appearance, joining Garvey and Pujols), James Shields (the first Royal since Cone in 1993) and Clayton Kershaw (the Dodgers' first appearance since Brown in '99). Using six starting pitchers also widened the gap between hurlers (31 to date) and the next-closest position, outfielders (19).

The 2014 preview went back to the one national cover, with a caveat -- three certain regions got their own unique images. Masahiro Tanaka drew the honors for the national cover, but those in the Northwest received Robinson Cano, the Southwest (I would guess) got Mike Trout and the Midwest got Yadier Molina. Tanaka and Cano, of course, fit the player on a new team criteria, with Tanaka (a Yankee) also on a team with postseason aspirations (sorry, Mariners). Molina's team, the defending National League champions, also is expected to play into October, and Trout is the best player in the game.

The Nationals, for the second straight year, are SI's pick to win the World Series. In '13, they missed out on the playoffs by four games, with a still-respectable 86-76 record.

My two Nationals fan friends asked in 2013 if the six regional covers meant just a 1/6th chance of a cover jinx for their club, and I suppose this spreading of the wealth could dilute such a hex, though the Nats remained the only club picked to win the World Series, so it wouldn't be an even six-way split, if you ask me. Not that it matters. I'm not sure there's a jinx so much as a heightened awareness of the teams and players featured -- who generally are the top teams and stars, at least in the past few decades -- so that anything short of a World Series title or award-winning season is seen as proof of a hex. I mean, are Mariners fans really going to blame the SI cover jinx if their team doesn't win the World Series in 2014?

But hey, I've run the numbers -- use them as you see fit.

4 comments:

Brad said...

I can't believe I forgot Joe Carter was on the 1987 cover with Cory Snyder. It's likely because I don't remember much else about Snyder (except for that gold cup on his '87 Topps card), whereas Carter had a more memorable baseball career and a much more memorable baseball moment. Wild Thing, you make everything groovy, including that pitch to Carter.

Brad said...

Also, on behalf of a grateful nation, belated thanks to SI for shielding the Big Unit's ugly mug behind his glove on the 1997 cover. It would have been a shock to go from Tyra Banks to Randy Johnson’s visage in a matter of weeks.

Jonathan L. Ford said...

Quick correction: Braun's 2008 BA was actually .285. Cheers!

Dan said...

Thanks, Jonathan. I must've copied it wrong from Baseball-Reference. Though, with all the facts and figures in this post, I was bound to get something wrong! And that's probably not the only thing.